Anger at the sponsoring of Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One car by a firm that made combustible insulation used on Grenfell Tower has intensified after a cabinet minister demanded a U-turn by Mercedes.
Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, spoke out after Grenfell survivors branded the deal “truly shocking”. He said he was “deeply disappointed Mercedes are accepting sponsorship from cladding firm Kingspan … while the Grenfell inquiry is ongoing”.
Hamilton, a seven-time Formula One champion, is facing protests from Grenfell survivors over the deal that will see his car emblazoned with Kingspan’s logo starting at this weekend’s Saudi Arabia Grand Prix.
Kingspan made some of the insulation used on the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, which caught fire on 14 June 2017, killing 72 people. Survivors of the disaster and bereaved relatives demanded the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One team drop the sponsorship deal, with one branding it “disgusting”.
After the Guardian revealed their anger, Gove tweeted on Thursday night: “The Grenfell community deserves better.”
The survivors’ group Grenfell United said in a letter on Thursday to the team boss, Toto Wolff: “Kingspan played a central role in inflicting the pain and suffering that we feel today, and there must be a degree of public censure for Kingspan’s recklessness and carelessness for human life.” It called on him to “immediately sever your relationship” with Kingspan.
But the company continued to use a previous test pass and sold them for use on buildings across the UK, including Grenfell, where a small amount were used. The public inquiry has heard that Kingspan executives also dismissed customers’ concerns about the boards’ fire safety, with a manager in one case saying: “[They] are getting me confused with someone who gives a dam [sic].”
The British driver, who is currently second in the world championship standings, has previously supported the Grenfell community. On the third anniversary of the fire, he posted on Instagram: “Today marks three years since the horrific Grenfell Tower fire in London. Remembering the 72 souls we lost and their loved ones, and everyone affected by this tragedy. #justiceforgrenfell.”
Mercedes’ decision to take the sponsorship, with the logo on the cars’ nose cone, was branded “disgusting” by Nabil Choucair, who lost six members of his family in the fire.
“I am very disappointed that someone who says he supports us, wants to advertise Kingspan, who contributed to the loss of innocent lives,” he said. “He should not accept it. You can’t support the community and say you respect the deceased and families and still take sponsorship like this.”
The Mercedes team stressed that drivers were not involved in sponsorship decisions, and said in a statement: “Our partner Kingspan has supported, and continues to support, the vitally important work of the inquiry to determine what went wrong and why in the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Our new partnership announced this week is centred on sustainability, and will support us in achieving our targets in this area.”
In 2020, the public inquiry into the disaster disclosed emails from a Kingspan technical manager after he was questioned by potential customers about the fire safety of the boards in which he said the customer “can go f#ck themselves, and if they are not careful we’ll sue the a#se [off ] them”.
Other emails revealed how technical team members joked in 2016 that claims about how safe the product was were “all lies” and it should be scrapped.
Plastic-filled aluminium cladding panels made by a different company, Arconic, were the main cause of the rapid spread of the Grenfell Tower fire, the inquiry has already found. The foam panels made mostly by Celotex and a small quantity of boards from Kingspan used as insulation “contributed to the rate and extent of vertical flame spread”, according to Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the chair of the inquiry.
Kingspan’s chief executive, Gene Murtagh, this year admitted “unacceptable conduct and historical process shortcomings, involving a small number of employees”, but said this did “not reflect the high standards of integrity and safety that are core Kingspan values”.
He said: “We have already implemented several important changes that demonstrate our commitment to product compliance and good governance. Our aims are clear: to reassure that safety takes precedence over all other considerations and to ensure this can never happen again.”
In a statement announcing the sponsorship deal, the Mercedes team said: “Kingspan’s products, systems and technologies address critical challenges in the built environment, including improving energy efficiency, reducing embodied carbon, driving circularity and conserving water. They have been used to help create high-performance buildings around the world for the team’s parent company, Mercedes-Benz.”
Wolff said he was “delighted to welcome Kingspan to our team”.
In a statement, Kingspan told the Guardian: “Kingspan played no role in the design of the cladding system on Grenfell Tower, where its K15 product constituted approximately 5% of the insulation and was used as a substitute product without Kingspan’s knowledge in a system that was not compliant with the building regulations. The new partnership with the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One team reflects the ambitious sustainability targets of both organisations.”