Formula 1 boss boosts empire at Biggin Hill

Bernie Ecclestone, the undisputed king of Formula One motor racing and one of the highest-paid individuals in Britain, is to expand his business empire at Biggin Hill, the historic Battle of Britain airbase.

In a multi-million pound deal he is is understood to be planning to build a new factory on the site to re-house his company, Formula One Promotions, which makes electronic gadgetry used to produce the dazzling on-board television pictures of Grand Prix races.

The impetus behind the project is thought to have been Mr Ecclestone's on-going discussions with the satellite broadcaster, BSkyB, aimed at expanding coverage of the increasingly popular sport with the advent of digital pay-TV next year. He owns and operates the Formula One Constructors Association which holds the highly lucrative rights to televise Formula One races.

Formula One Promotions, which designs and manufactures the camera systems which can send back pictures on racing cars at speeds of 200 miles per hour, has been based at Biggin Hill Airport for several years, but is thought to have outgrown its existing building. Like Mr Ecclestone's other business interests the company keeps a low profile and no one was available for comment yesterday.

The negotiations have been taking place with Regional Airports, which leases Biggin Hill from Bromley Council and also operates Southend Airport. The world-famous airfield is also home to Mr Ecclestone's private jet.

The deal is just one element in expansion plans for the site drawn up by Regional Airports, which recently opened a new air terminal at Biggin Hill and has spent pounds 2m improving runway facilities. The company is believed to be engaged in complex negotiations to develop the adjacent West Camp, a former RAF training centre.

The airfield opened in 1914, and reached its heyday during the Battle of Britain as one of the most important bases for Spitfires and Hurricanes.

After RAF flights ceased in 1959, the site was split into two, with the civil airport run separately from the 30-acre West Camp, which became the main selection centre for RAF recruits. The Ministry of Defence sold the West Camp in 1992 to Dan Graham, a Jersey property developer.

Buying the West Camp would enable Regional Airports to get its hands on some of the best facilities on the airfield, many of which are currently disused, including the main aircraft taxi-way. Biggin Hill has become a popular venue for wealthy private travellers and flying clubs, and at busy periods can see 500 aircraft movements a day.

But the ambitions of Mr Ecclestone and Regional Airports have brought them into conflict with Bromley Council, which is reviewing its development plan for Biggin Hill. Planners have insisted new building work must enhance or preserve the character of the area, which includes listed buildings, such as a 1930s officers' mess.