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Grenfell, Lewis Hamilton and the Kingspan sponsorship row: What is it all about?

Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One team Mercedes has U-turned on a sponsorship deal with Kingspan, a firm whose cladding was used on Grenfell Tower, after a backlash

Lewis Hamilton and his Formula One team Mercedes have backed out of a sponsorship deal with a firm that manufactured cladding used on Grenfell Tower after facing pressure from campaigners.

Mercedes announced a deal with Kingspan on December 1 which would see the company’s logo featured on the team’s car as Hamilton fights for a record eighth driver’s title.

But the logo only appeared on the car for the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix after Mercedes pulled the plug on the deal a week after its announcement. A Mercedes spokesperson announced the two parties had “mutually agreed” to end their partnership on December 8, describing the deal as “not appropriate”.

The U-turn was hailed by Grenfell United, a group of Grenfell survivors and bereaved families, who met with Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff. The group said the move was a “small step” but “encourages us to keep fighting” for justice over the tragic 2017 fire.

Why did the deal prove so controversial? Let The Big Issue break it down.

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Why has Mercedes ended the deal?

Mercedes had announced the partnership as a push towards sustainability but quickly faced pressure from Grenfell survivors and politicians to back out of the deal.

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Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff also met with Grenfell survivors from Grenfell United who presented him with details of Kingspan’s involvement in Grenfell Tower, where 72 people lost their lives in the 2017 blaze.

Following the meeting, a Mercedes spokesperson announced the Kingspan logo would not appear on the team’s Formula 1 car in future and the two companies had parted ways.

A Mercedes spokesperson said: “The Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team and Kingspan today announced that they have mutually agreed to end their partnership.

They added: “Both parties have subsequently concluded that it is not appropriate for the partnership to move forward at the current point in time, notwithstanding its intended positive impact, and we have therefore agreed that it will be discontinued with immediate effect.”

In addition, Kingspan denied that it had a role in refurbishing Grenfell Tower and reiterated arguments it made last week that the use of the firm’s K15 insulation on the tower was “substituted without our knowledge”  and was “misused”.

A Kingspan spokesperson said: “We are deeply aware of the sensitivities raised in recent days, and so we have jointly agreed that it’s not appropriate to move forward at the current point in time.”

Grenfell United campaigners said Mercedes’ U-turn was the “right thing” to do.

“We met with Toto Wolff and shared the facts from the Grenfell Inquiry and Mercedes came to their own conclusion,” said Grenfell United, in a statement following the news. 

“Mercedes have taken a stance in their decision to disassociate themselves with Kingspan. They have shown that people can be put before profit.

“It’s good to see a company with global reach listen to the facts and do the right thing.

“With justice still so far away, it’s these small steps that encourage us to keep fighting.”

Why did Mercedes partner with Kingspan?

As the world shifts towards carbon neutrality, Formula One (F1) is under pressure to become more sustainable and is introducing redesigned cars, new regulations and budget restrictions to make the sport greener.

Kingpsan joined Mercedes, or Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One team as the team is officially known, as a sustainability partner.

According to the firm, Kingspan has already been working with the wider Mercedes firm to “create high performance buildings around the world”.

Kingspan were set to chair a Sustainability Working Group for Mercedes, which would have had the remit of “drawing together expertise from diverse fields to contribute to the team’s objective of pioneering new approaches and technologies for emissions reduction in motorsport”.

The Mercedes team has set a target of reducing CO2 emissions in its operations by 50 per cent by next year, including the operation of the cars, the logistics of moving team personnel and vehicles to races around the world and the operation of their factory. 

Kingspan is targeting net zero manufacturing by 2030 and a 50 per cent reduction in CO2 intensity in primary supply partners by 2030.

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Was Kingspan cladding used on Grenfell?

Kingspan’s K15 insulation was one of the products installed on Grenfell Tower during its refurbishment. But the majority of the insulation used on the tower block was made by another company.

Kingspan has said it did not contribute to the design of the cladding on Grenfell Tower and its K15 insulation made up a small amount of cladding – around five per cent.

The firm also said the K15 product was used “as a substitute product without Kingspan’s knowledge in a system that was not compliant with building regulations.”

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However, the firm’s employees have still been required to give evidence at the public inquiry and part of the criticism over the Mercedes deal has centred on the announcement coming before the inquiry has ended.

In February, Andrew Pack, Kingspan’s global technical support manager, told the inquiry Kingspan’s fire test reports were kept “almost secret” amid questions over the product’s safety.

The firm has previously apologised for revelations uncovered in the inquiry. A Kingspan spokesperson previously said: “The inquiry has highlighted historic process shortcomings and unacceptable conduct within a part of our UK insulation business, for which we have apologised unreservedly and which we are treating with the utmost seriousness.”

Why was the deal criticised?

The deal has faced criticism from Grenfell survivors and bereaved families as well as the housing secretary Michael Gove.

The fire at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, West London, in 2017 killed 72 people and put fire safety in buildings in the spotlight.

A public inquiry into the factors that contributed to the fire is ongoing and currently in its second phase.

Grenfell United, a group of Grenfell survivors and bereaved families, have said the sponsorship deal has “shattered us”.

In a letter directed at Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes’ F1 team, Grenfell United wrote: “This week’s announcement of your new partnership with Kingspan is truly shocking. 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.”

The letter continued: “By partnering with Kingspan we believe that you are directly involved in this system which puts profit before human life. We are therefore seeking assurances from you that you will take affirmative action to disassociate yourselves from Kingspan”.

That triggered an exchange of letters between Wolff and Grenfell United.

Wolff responded with an apology for the “additional hurt that this announcement has caused” as well as offering to meet campaigners in person so the Mercedes boss could “learn and understand better”.

But Wolff gave no indication that Mercedes would reconsider the deal.

Grenfell United responded with another letter urging Wolff 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”.

The campaigners added that they hoped the matter could be “resolved as soon as possible”.

Gove also said he would write to the Formula One team in his initial response to the issue.

The housing secretary tweeted: “Deeply disappointed that @MercedesAMGF1 are accepting sponsorship from cladding firm Kingspan while the Grenfell Inquiry is ongoing. I will be writing to Mercedes to ask them to reconsider. The Grenfell community deserves better.”

In his letter, Gove said the partnership between Mercedes and Kingspan “threatens to undermine all the good work the company and sport has done”.

Gove’s shadow cabinet counterpart, Labour’s Lisa Nandy, responded with a letter of her own to the Conservative minister.

Nandy said she was “heartened” to see Gove’s “swift criticism” of the Mercedes-Kingspan deal but called for him to “take the same principled stance” over alleged donations from property developers to the Conservative Party.

What has Lewis Hamilton said?

In response to the controversy, Mercedes previously said the Kingspan deal “is centred on sustainability”.

A spokesperson added: “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.”

But what has their star driver Lewis Hamilton – the most successful racer in the history of F1 – had to say on the matter?

The Formula 1 driver has previously spoken out in support of Grenfell survivors and bereaved families.

In an Instagram post to mark the third anniversary of the disaster in 2020, Hamilton said: “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.”

Hamilton was asked about the issue following Saturday’s qualifying session in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Hamilton said he had “nothing” to do with the deal. The 36-year-old said: “It is not something that I feel I have to speak about publicly.”

He added: “It is really nothing to do with me and I know Toto (Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff) is sorting it.

“Unfortunately my name is associated with it because it has been on my car but whether that remains the same, we will see.”

The British driver, however, had taken aim at the sport ahead of last weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Hamilton has changed the livery on his helmet to an LGBTQ+ flag for the final three races of the season in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in protest at the countries’ stance on same-sex relationships.

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