Who was Paul Torchy?
Paul Gaston Torchy was a young man who had already, aged 28, led a very eventful life. Born in Elbouef near Rouen (Seine-Maritime) on the 17th November 1897 he was the son of schoolmaster Isidore Torchy and, with such a background, might have been expected to be groomed for the Halls of Academe. The feisty young Paul was having none of that! When the Great War broke out Paul was approaching his 17th birthday and ineligible to join up but come his 18th birthday the following November the young man was immediately signing on the dotted line at the local recruiting station. Passed medically fit to be shot or blown up he was given the lowly rank of canonnier (gunner) 2ème classe and posted to the 108 Th Heavy Artillery Regiment for basic training. Within a year of arriving at the front he was awarded the Croix de Guerre (Bronze Star) for valiantly leading his section under heavy bombardment. With further citations he ended his war in Greece after taking part in the Salonika campaign…he was just 21 years old!
As can be seen from Paul’s military record above he had a great deal of which to be proud but his adventurous spirit wanted more and this led him to come knocking on the door of the Delage factory. Little is known of Paul’s initial duties but he graduated to the competition department quite early in his employment as mechanic and test driver. This must have been heaven on earth for any aspiring young racing driver. Here he was at the state of the art facilities of a manufacturer which had already won voiturette and Grand Prix races, had won the Indy 500 and was developing invincible sprint cars, one of which was to briefly hold the World Land Speed Record. In any event young Torchy had sufficiently impressed Louis Delâge and probably his ace driver and head of the competition department René Thomas to be given the co-driver’s seat alongside the dependable Charles Belben, another mechanic/tester who had been with Delage since 1911, to handle the Delage entry in the inaugural Le Mans 24 hours. The 2 litre DE entered had no chance of overall honours and was entered purely as a demonstration of Delage quality and reliability. This it did in the capable hands of Belben and Torchy finishing 13th overall.
The story of Planchon’s difficulties in extracting more power and reliability on the dyno from the V12 is a matter of record leading to Louis Delâge, aided and abetted by Thomas, firing the unfortunate Planchon and handing over development to Albert Lory. Four brand new cars were produced for 1924 and Paul Torchy was one of the race team mechanics (but not riding mechanic even though they were still required in 1924). Picture below shows him, standing 4th from left, with Divo’s car at the Lyon circuit for the European Grand Prix.
Baptism by fire – The Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps – 28th June 1925
This put a different perspective on things and Louis Delâge decided to enter a full team of four cars in the Belgian GP to be held at the demanding Spa Francorchamps circuit on 28th of June. Only problem was that none of the new cars was remotely race-ready. A wise move would have been to withdraw the entry but Louis Delâge wouldn’t countenance this so one new car was got just about ready and handed to Divo while three of the 1924 cars were cobbled up with the supercharged engine for Thomas, Benoist and…Paul Torchy! Yes, young Paul had been promoted to Grand Prix driver with the most august of company, not least within his own team. This was no 24 hour jolly trundling round la Sarthe in a comparatively pedestrian DE mind you. He was sitting on the grid in the most viciously powerful Grand Prix car on the planet with road-holding barely, if at all, capable of handling it. Alongside him was Gastone Brilli-Peri, in front on the second row was the roly-poly opera-singing Giuseppe Campari and Albert Divo with the front row comprising René Thomas, Antonio Ascari and Robert Benoist; the absolute crème de la crème of mid-twenties Grand Prix drivers. A baptism by fire indeed! Picture below shows Paul in the ‘interim’ 2LCV #12 during practice.
Home soil The GP de l’ACF – Montlhéry – 26th July 1925
The next race on the calendar was Delage’s home race, to be held on the full circuit at Linas-Montlhéry on the 26th of July. Delage entered four cars for Benoist, Divo, Wagner (taking the place of the demoted Thomas who was nonetheless in the Delage pit on race day) and Paul Torchy. In the event only three cars were presented but they were all the latest 1925 spec with modified chassis, steering and bodywork as compared to the 1924 cars and, of course, they all had the latest supercharged engines. The three cars were allocated to Divo, Benoist and Louis Wagner with Paul Torchy as reserve to share the driving as required. By 1925 Louis Wagner was a veteran of 43 years old and had raced with great success some of the most mythical racing cars since the dawn of the sport. One of his first races was the Paris-Madrid and he had been victorious on both sides of the Atlantic including winning the Vanderbilt Cup in 1906, the American Grand Prize in 1908, second in the 1912 French GP driving for FIAT and second again behind team-mate Lautenschlager driving a Mercedes in the legendary 1914 French GP. After the Great War Wagner had driven for Ballot before joining the all-conquering Alfa Romeo team for 1924. He was a driver of high principles and great skill from whom the young Paul Torchy could learn a lot.
While all this drama was going on the redoubtable Wagner had been running a steady 4th around 5 minutes behind Masetti in the #7 Sunbeam and had handed over to Paul Torchy at their scheduled stop on lap 33. This was the first time Paul had got his hands on the latest spec Delage in anger and, it would have to be said, these were not the ideal conditions to re-acquaint himself with the 2LCV’s surfeit of power over grip and road holding! Paul drove neatly and steadily for his opening laps and kept the gap to Masetti steady at around 6 minutes but on lap 39 he had an almighty tank-slapper and spin which lost him 4 minutes to Masetti and even allowed the ‘Touring’ Bugatti T35 of Costantini to get past. Torchy collected his thoughts, soon reeled in and passed Costantini and set off after Masetti. There were to be no more histrionics and Paul drove exceptionally, taking around 90 seconds a lap off the Sunbeam so that, when he handed over to Wagner on lap 59 the #14 Delage was only 2 minutes in arears. By lap 68 Wagner had caught and passed Masetti to take second place behind the leading similar car of Benoist. So the race petered out to its muted conclusion, the dismal skies and now-continuous rain adding to the gloom that had descended as a result of the announcement of Ascari’s death.
The AIACR World Championship…and two bombshells!
Let us first examine the regulations laid down by the AIACR which governed the first World Championship of Makes (Note ‘makes’ not ‘drivers’) in 1925. The championship was to comprise four designated races (originally five but the ‘British Grand Prix’, which was never a serious possibility, was dropped). These were nominated as the Indianapolis 500 Miles, the Belgian (European) GP, the French (GP de l’ACF) GP and finally the Italian GP. Participation in the Italian GP was mandatory but others could be skipped with a points penalty. Points were awarded for one car only per team (to avoid multi-car teams being at a disadvantage over single entries) and were allocated as follows: 1st place – 1point; 2nd place – 2 points; 3rd place - 3 points; all other finishers – 4 points; non finishers -5 points and non-starters – 6 points; the best of three nominated events, including the Italian GP, to count. The manufacturer with the lowest combined score would be Champion; in the event of a tie there would be a run-off at Monza within 48 hrs of the Italian GP. All competing cars must comply with the then current AIACR regulations of a maximum displacement of 2 litres, superchargers optional, minimum weight of 650 kg and a minimum body width of 80 cm. It has been inferred that the inclusion of the Indy 500 was merely to justify the title ‘World’ in the championship with no realistic expectation of transatlantic competition. This has been shown to be untrue insofar as the Italian Club at least, if not the AIACR, had intimated early in the year that the American cars could compete, at least at Monza, if suitably modified to comply with the cross-sectional dimension requirement. In any event the AAA regulations governing Indy and all other American Championship races were very similar to the AIACR with a maximum displacement, blown or unblown, of 122 cu.in (1999 cc) and a minimum weight of 1400 lb (635 kg). The latter could easily be brought within AIACR regulations by the addition of ballast if necessary although, in practice, none of the 1925 Indy competitors weighed below 650 kg. The only potential fly in the ointment regarding the two disciplines competing together was the body width but it had been inferred that this could be accommodated. Under AAA rules there was no stipulation on body width or number of seats so all serious competitors ran a minimum width single seater configuration with centre steering. Such cars would have been ineligible for the AIACR Championship but were given the necessary dispensation for the Indy 500. There would have been nothing to preclude the European cars from running at Indy but in the event only Bordino’s FIAT did. The AIACR, in their usual high-handed manner, assumed the Americans would have their ‘sideshow’ and take no further part in the World Championship or if they did they would have to modify their cars. This assumption lasted all through the summer until after the French GP which had left Alfa-Romeo and Delage tied on points at 12 points each. Obviously both those teams would drop the 6 points incurred for missing Indy so the Championship was going to be decided at Monza in the Italian GP until…
Bombshell #1 The Yanks are coming!
On August 1st Duesenberg announced that they had submitted entries for the Italian GP and two cars were ready for shipment to Italy! The two cars were in American AAA specification with the addition of front-wheel brakes but Duesenberg had been assured by the organising Italian club that they would be eligible providing they carried ‘plates’ giving an overall width of 80 cm to the single seater bodies. Drivers had been nominated as Tommy Milton and AJ ‘Peter’ Kreis. While the immensely likeable Kreis was a wealthy amateur who had finished 8th in that year’s Indy 500 Tommy Milton was an absolute top-line driver who had already competed in 7 Indy 500 Miles, uniquely winning two of them and coming 3rd in another in spite of having only one eye (it was said that he memorised the sight test-card to pass his racing licence medical!). A notable absentee from the Duesey line-up was Pete De Paolo; the Indy 500 winner had announced that he was staying home to concentrate on the AAA Championship. This turned out to be economical with the truth as he had been in negotiations to drive for Alfa-Romeo which at first seemed to be unlikely. However, Alfa, still in shock from the loss of their superstar Ascari, could not obtain their first choice of third driver, Masetti, and being unable to strike a deal with Bordino they accepted De Paolo’s offer at the last minute. It was ‘fortuitous’ that De Paolo was in Milan bearing in mind it took the best part of a week to travel by sea from New York to Genoa in 1925! There was a great deal of money flying around for this race and the Duesenberg team had been offered ‘very substantial appearance money’ according to Motor Age. When the Duesey team arrived it was immediately apparent that these were no ‘appearance money specials’. They had an inordinate amount of kit, top mechanics, special tyres and even their own special fuel; they were in it to win it! This put the cat among the pigeons as far as the World Championship was concerned. Hitherto considered just a straight fight between Alfa and Delage; whoever finished ahead in the top three would be champions, if neither finished in the top three there would be a race-off. Now with Milton and Duesenberg quite capable of winning the race people hastily got out their pencils and paper to work out possible scenarios. It was quite simple. If Duesey won and a Delage or Alfa was second then there would be a race off, Duesenberg versus the second place marque as both teams would have 14 points with a 6 point discard leaving both on 8 points. There were various other permutations which would result in a Duesey/Alfa/Delage win or a race off but, in view of the opposition, these were considered unlikely. Thus the scene seemed to be set for a titanic battle between the three makes until…
Bombshell # 2 Delage withdraw!
Delage, who had been strangely quiet in the lead up to the race, had entered 4 cars for Benoist, Divo, Paul Torchy and the re-instated Thomas. On August 10, less than a month before the race, Benoist, in an interview with Italian journalists, made an extraordinary statement. He intimated that Delage might withdraw from the race ‘due to insufficient time to get the new cars ready’! On the face of it this was a preposterous comment. Delage had a state of the art factory with a skilled and experienced Racing Department and they had dyno testing facilities with two of the dynos specifically set up to test and tune the 2LCV V12 racing engines
The Decider. Italian GP Monza 6th September 1925
III Gran Premio do San Sebastan Circuito Lasarte, 19 September 1925
So was ended the brief life of Paul Torchy. A young man who had distinguished himself in everything he had done; a decorated soldier for his country, a rowing champion and a mechanic who rose to become a valued and highly popular member of an elite motor racing team. The funeral service was held at Courbevoie church attended by a large congregation including members of his family and all the senior executives of the Delage Company including, of course, Louis Delâge who gave an emotional oration. The coffin was borne by his team mates Thomas, Benoist, Divo and Wagner who had kept vigil over the body since its arrival in Paris. A very sad occasion but we must remember the attitude to life and death of these young, and some not so young, racing drivers in the early Twenties. Most had fought through and survived the carnage of the Great War. Many had been airmen when life expectancy had been frequently measured in days. Driving a racing car expressed their joi de vivre and, while mindful of the risks, must therefore have seemed a relatively safe activity, incomprehensible as that may be to today’s sanitized society. Paul Torchy is not the first name that comes to mind when recalling the great racing drivers but nonetheless it should forever be remembered by enthusiasts of the sport. We will never know how Paul would have handled the 1500cc 15-S-8 in 1926 and ’27 and which would take Delage to victory in the World Championship but it is safe to assume that he would have acquitted himself with honour and distinction.
All text © Colin Musgrove 2019