Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes Formula One team is facing growing pressure to scrap a sponsorship deal with a firm that made combustible insulation on Grenfell Tower, after the government threatened to change advertising rules.
The racing team’s deal with Kingspan will mean the logo of the firm that made some of the foam boards used on the tower will be emblazoned on the nose cone of cars driven by Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas starting at this weekend’s Saudi Arabia Grand Prix.
It sparked a furious backlash from the Grenfell community and on Friday Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, told Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff that parliament could extend government powers over advertising to include logos on cars. Gove said the Grenfell families had “the right to be hurt and aggrieved by your decision”.
Gove said: “There are very real questions about whether parliament would support a statutory regime that enabled a core participant in a public inquiry into how 72 people lost their lives to advertise its products publicly to millions of families across the country.”
Kingspan’s actions have been heavily scrutinised by the inquiry into the disaster, which has already found its materials “contributed to the rate and extent of vertical flame spread”.
The Grenfell Next of Kin group joined community anger and urged Wolff and Hamilton not to “sportswash sins”, accusing them of being on the wrong side of history.
Grenfell United, which also represents survivors and bereaved families, told Wolff in a letter on Thursday: “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].”
On Friday afternoon, Wolff apologised to the survivors and bereaved families of Grenfell Tower for the hurt caused by the new partnership, but stopped short of announcing the deal would be abandoned. He accepted an offer to meet community representatives “as soon as we can … for me to learn and understand better”.
He said that before agreeing the deal with Kingspan, Mercedes asked what role its products played in what happened at Grenfell.
“Kingspan have stated that they played no role in the design or construction of the cladding system on Grenfell Tower, and that a small percentage of their product was used as a substitute without their knowledge in part of the system which was not compliant with building regulations and was unsafe,” Wolff said, closely echoing Kingspan’s own statements.
“I know that this does not change in any way the awful tragedy you suffered, or the deep and ongoing pain felt in your community, and I would like to thank Grenfell United for the offer to meet in person for me to learn and understand better.”
Grenfell United responded: “Whilst we appreciate your attempt to understand Kingspan’s actions at Grenfell, we hope you understand that by only asking Kingspan for their account of involvement, you are in essence asking them to mark their own homework; a system which led to Grenfell in the first place.”
It told Wolff the public inquiry had already “found Kingspan set the precedent for manipulating tests and pushing deadly products on to the market.
“Whilst 72 of our loved ones were killed, 18 of which were children, Kingpsan and others have walked away so far unscathed. We urge you to stand with us in our fight for justice, to be the frontrunners in setting the standard in F1 and the industry, that money does not come before human life.”
Gove, who said he was “deeply disappointed” at the deal, also told Wolff the government’s own representations to the inquiry noted that Kingspan knew its products were more combustible than they were advertising them to be. He quoted one employee testimony to the inquiry that he had been “embroiled in a deliberate and calculated deceit by Kingspan”.
Hamid Ali Jafari, a member of Grenfell Next of Kin whose father was killed in the blaze, said on Friday the deal was “shocking and upsetting” and called on Mercedes and Hamilton to apologise.
“If Lewis Hamilton wants to support us he could put the logo of Grenfell on the car and show that 72 people died and four-and-a-half years later nothing has happened,” he said.
“These people [Kingspan] flouted regulations and didn’t care less,” said Shahrokh Aghlani, who lost his mother and his aunt in the blaze. “Sport should stand for something in morality. I hope they do the right thing.”
The Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One team has stressed that Hamilton is not involved in the sponsorship deals.
The deal was announced with pictures of Gene Murtagh, Kingspan’s chief executive, sitting on one of the Mercedes F1 cars with Wolff.
The inquiry has seen emails showing that the day before the first anniversary of the disaster he instructed his PR team to push ahead with trying to shape press coverage in favour of his firm’s commercial interest, in spite of the sensitivity of the date.
After a senior executive urged the firm’s PR consultant to push a story to journalists arguing against banning all combustible materials in external walls, the consultant cautioned against it, saying “anything that veers towards the topic of money could be taken badly”.
But Murtagh said: “We need to push ahead from every angle and without delay.”
Ed Daffarn, who escaped from the 16th floor, said it showed “a callous indifference to the suffering and pain of the bereaved and survivors”.
“To see Gene Murtagh sitting on a Mercedes Formula One car is like pouring salt into an already festering wound,” he said.
In response to criticism of the sponsorship deal, a spokesperson for Kingspan said it played no role in the cladding system design, 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”.
Mercedes said: “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.”